Obituary: Jack Gold, film and television director

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Born: 28 June, 1930, in London. Died: 9 August, 2015, aged 85

While never attaining the recognition of his contemporaries Ken Loach and Michael Apted, Jack Gold worked with distinction as a director in television and cinema for more than half a century, beginning with news reports for BBC’s Tonight programme in the early 1960s. He claimed to be the first BBC director to use hand-held cameras.

He graduated to feature films in 1968 with The Bofors Gun, the military drama that John McGrath had adapted from his own play about soldiers doing national service in peacetime Germany. He went on to direct several more features, including the First World War film Aces High and the supernatural thriller The Medusa Touch, with Richard Burton.

But Gold was wary of the values and glitz of the film industry. His film-making was unshowy and realist, with a decided preference for character over action. Like Ken Loach, he was also a committed socialist – he even wrestled with his conscience before making a film about starving people in India because he knew that he would inevitably be consuming the food that his subjects did not have.

While others, including Loach, Apted and Ken Russell, made their mark initially in television in the 1960s and then found their own particular niches in cinema, Gold returned to television and made most of his most notable work for the small screen.

One of his most acclaimed and most discussed television dramas was The Naked Civil Servant, about the flamboyant homosexual Quentin Crisp (played by John Hurt).

The distinguished critic Alexander Walker wrote in his book Hollywood, England: The British Film Industry in the Sixties: “It’s important to stress that such a return (from films to television) in no way connotes failure for him… for it is his commitment to the audience in the widest social sense which is best fulfilled by the little screen: it reaches a population of stupendous numbers.”

Gold was a close friend of the late John Thaw, who played one of the soldiers in The Bofors Gun. Gold directed him in the final episode of Inspector Morse in 2000, as well as the television film Goodnight, Mister Tom and several episodes of Kavanagh QC. He also made the documentary The John Thaw Story, shortly after his death in 2002.

Born into a Jewish family in London in 1930, Gold studied Economics and Law at University College London and began working for the BBC in the mid-1950s in radio, as an assistant studio manager. Switching to the developing medium of television, he trained as an editor before cutting his teeth as a director on Tonight, working with such legendary television journalists as Alan Whicker and the Scot Fyfe Robertson.

He reckoned that he directed 300-400 short news reports for Tonight, but the programme sometimes did much longer documentaries on a single subject and Gold made a big impact with one on fox-hunting entitled Death in the Morning. It was presented by Whicker and was memorable for its chase sequence shown from the perspective of the fox. It focused a debate that would eventually lead to a ban on the practice.

He used drama elements and re-enactments in some of his documentary work. One of his first actual dramas was The Lump, which he made for the famous Wednesday Play slot, in 1967. Although it was a drama, it tackled the issue of unsafe practices in the building industry – hardly the sort of fare that would have Hollywood studios racing to his door.

The Bofors Gun, which starred the Scottish actor Nicol Williamson, garnered impressive reviews, has stood the test of time as a tight character drama and was shown last year at the Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a McGrath retrospective. But it was not widely seen on initial release and did little to advance Gold’s film career.

One of his best films was Man Friday, the story of Robinson Crusoe, retold from Friday’s point of view. Richard Roundtree played the laid-back, intelligent Friday and Peter O’Toole was the stiff, arrogant Crusoe, who fails to persuade Friday to adopt his lifestyle and values, is rejected by Friday’s tribe and ends up killing himself.

However, by the early 1980s the British film industry was in dire straits and Gold was working almost entirely in television. Channel 4 effectively rescued the industry and pumped a small fortune into films, many of which were shown in cinemas as well as on television.

Gold made several films for the new company, including Red Monarch, which revisited the story of Stalin as knockabout comedy, and The Chain, a comedy about seven London households all moving house on the same day.

Gold was also involved in the BBC’s gargantuan project to film all Shakespeare’s plays in the 1970s and 1980s, directing The Merchant of Venice, with Warren Mitchell, and Macbeth, which reunited him with Nicol Williamson.

Critic Neil Sinyard wrote in Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors: “He has proved a self-effacing but sensitive director, much admired by actors for his attention to the inner motives of his characters and his concern for the truth of a situation.”

Gold is survived by Denyse Alexander, an actress to whom he was married for 58 years, and by three children, seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

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